Blue Jean movie review: cowardice and bravery as matters of survival

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: A powerful, necessary film, deeply humane and sympathetic, ugly-beautiful in its panic, full of dread and bad behavior. We feel every iota of Jean’s anxiety at closeted life in the homophobic 1980s.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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We don’t get enough movies that center women and our struggles, and even fewer if those struggles are not about finding and settling into a straight-cis pairing with a man and the presumption that children will soon be on the way.

Sometimes we get movies about women fighting for self-determination, for a recognition of our own humanity… but way too often, those movies are about struggles that have already been won. I’m thinking about, say, a movie like 2015’s Suffragette. I love that movie, and I’m not singling it out particularly, because this isn’t about any individual film but the greater zeitgeist that determines which kinds of feminist stories may be told. But it’s a perfect example of a movie about a feminist battle, about the right to vote, that was done and dusted a century ago, and about a battle that almost no one today would say wasn’t justified.

Blue Jean Rosy McEwen
Time to blow the whistle on homophobia…

Those stories absolutely need to be told, but not at the expense of ignoring the not-yet-won battles, the battles that too many people don’t seem to realize are necessary, which does seem to be happening. When so many movies about women today are not about women today, we may have a problem. Because women continue to face immense problems now, and the goals of feminism are far from achieved. It’s not enough to cheer on women in the past who won their fights for dignity and compassion. Equality has not been reached. The war is far from over.

Anyway, this is what I was thinking about somewhat during Blue Jean. This is a powerful, necessary film. But it is also one set 35 years ago, under a legal and cultural regime that has not existed for two decades. (Which is, I know, not the same as “this battle has been won.” But things are a little better.) It is 1988, and Jean (the brilliant Rosy McEwen, winner of a well-deserved British Independent Film Award for her work here) is a PE teacher at a secondary school in Newcastle, in the northeast of England. A new law, known as Section 28, is about to come into force under the Conservative government of Margaret fucking Thatcher. It is meant to restrict the “promotion of homosexuality,” which means pretty much any acknowledgement that gay people exist. Jean is a lesbian, closeted at work and not that more open about her reality outside of work. She has already been living in terror, and now things are much worse: if anyone finds out she’s gay, she could lose her job. And then a new student, Lois (Lucy Halliday), comes to the school, and Lois’s reality threatens to upends Jean’s…

Blue Jean Kerrie Hayes Rosy McEwen
A rare moment of relaxation for Jean…

Blue Jean is a movie that is deeply humane and sympathetic, and also full of dread and bad behavior. Jean skulks around her life — her entire life! — in fear of anyone finding out who she really is. It’s awful, and no way to live, and we experience every iota of her anxiety with her. McEwen’s performance, and writer-director Georgia Oakley’s depiction of it, is ugly-beautiful in its panic. (Oakley is also a recent BIFA winner, for Best Debut Screenwriter.) I mean, no one should have to live like this, like how Jean deftly sidesteps questions about her personal life even as there is alarm in her eyes, all the time. I mean that the beauty comes in the empathy, the profound understanding of what Jean is experiencing, and the acknowledgement that this is not normal or healthy or sane.

Jean is sometimes a character whom we might wish would be braver than she is: she does some terrible, selfish things in the cause of self-preservation. Those things are easy to understand, and we absolutely should not need marginalized people to be braver or stronger or better than any of the rest of us. When we are long propagandized on movies about historical wrongs being righted via the strength and courage of the marginalized, a movie like Blue Jean feels brave in a different way. Jean is an absolute mess, and that’s okay.

Blue Jean Rosy McEwen
Alone in a crowd (of homophobes)…

Still, I would also love more joyous, carefree movies about lesbian life. (I am not a lesbian. I have no skin in this game… except that I would also like it if movies about marginalized people weren’t so grim as often as they are.) I think it’s a good thing that much of what we see depicted here is absolutely on point for what trans people are going through right now… the living in fear, the terror that your life could just be ended at any moment, either figuratively or literally. But that’s unspoken subtext here.

At one point in this movie, Jean has a little bit of a tiff with her girlfriend, the out-and-proud Viv (Kerrie Hayes: Nowhere Boy). They are talking about how timid Jean is about her sexuality. “Not everything is political,” Jean says. “Of course it is,” Viv replies. It will be amazing when we get to the point where none of this is political, but — the fact that Section 28 is no longer in force notwithstanding — we’re not there yet.

more films like this:
• Disobedience [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Netflix US | Disney+ UK | Mubi UK | Curzon Home Cinema UK]
• Portrait of a Lady on Fire [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Hulu US | Mubi UK | Netflix UK | Curzon Home Cinema UK]

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Sun, Mar 05, 2023 2:34am

This sounds tremendous; I’ll have to keep an eye out for it here in the US.

we absolutely should not need marginalized people to be braver or stronger or better than any of the rest of us. 

> onehundred percent. Stories about queer people who are wholly human, in all the complexity and imperfection and wonder, are so necessary and important.